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The Meeting at the Algonquin Hotel

 

It’s understandable that the maître d’ wouldn’t take him for one of the hotel’s esteemed guests —

dressed in waist-length denim jacket, neatly creased jeans and dark blue French beret.

He had come directly to the oak-paneled dining room and the maître d’ assumed he was a hotel guest’s driver.

“Who shall I say you are meeting?”

“Oh, thank you. But no, I’m not meeting anyone.” He glanced about the room.

The maître ‘d said, “Excuse me a moment, please,” and left to go to guests seated nearby who were summoning.

A man stood up from a corner table, appraised the new arrival’s situation, and began hesitatingly making his way

in that direction.

As he neared, he called out, “Larry? It is you? Isn’t it?”

The young man smiled.

Somewhat puzzled, he said, “Yes. That’s right. I am Larry.”

“My word! It’s been so long. I couldn’t believe it was you. Heavens! It’s so good to see you. Here. In New York!”

Still hesitating, the younger man said, “Maugham? Mr. Maugham?

“Yes. Yes. It’s been forever.”

“I know!”

They clasped hands, peering at each other in surprise.

The maître d’ noticed and returned to Larry, waited courteously, off a little to one side.

“You’ll have to fill me in.”

“But of course.”

To the maître d’ Maugham said, “He’s an old, old friend.”

Turning to Larry he asked, “Are you by yourself? Or – umn – meeting someone?”

“Oh no. I’m not with anyone.”

“You’re here for lunch?”

Larry nodded, a smile forming at the corner of his lips.

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve heard so much about the Algonquin. Being nearby today, I thought I’d have a look.”

“Oh, it does indeed – umn umn – have a reputation.

“Please, would you care to join us? I’m over there – umn – with those gentlemen.”

He pointed toward his table.

“You’d enjoy them. The two on the left are New Yorker editors. The other is Salinger.

“The intelligent-looking one. That’s J. D. Salinger.”

He chuckled softly.

J D Salinger (image from Wikipedia)

“I’m sure they’d love to meet you.”

Larry eyed them briefly.

“Salinger’s brought them another story. You and he have a lot in common. It’s a follow-up to his ‘Franny,’ the story everyone in town is talking about.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. Maugham. I certainly appreciate it. But, if you don’t mind, I think I’d rather not. Not now. Thank you for the invitation though.”

Maugham, quick to conceal his surprise, said, “Of course.”

Larry said, warming up to his situation, “I’ve heard a lot of enthusiastic talk about Salinger. And his stories.

“As I was buying my paper this morning, I actually bought a copy of the New Yorker. Just to read his story of Franny.”

“Of course,” Maugham said.

Larry, not finished with his thoughts, said, “I even read his Franny. While at a taxi stand waiting for customers, I read the whole long story.

“His Franny immediately gained my sympathy — just as the author intended of course.

“It was her confusion. I empathized with it — right from the start. Hard not to.

“I had the same sort of wonder, as you know, back in India, with Shri Ganesha.

“I’m sure from reading his story, like you say, I have a lot in common with Salinger. And I would be pleased to meet him. But, if you don’t mind, another time?”

Maugham readily responded, “Of course. But then, would you mind if I joined you for lunch? It’s been a long time since we parted in Toulon. We’ve a lot to catch up. We could get a table to ourselves. Would that be alright with you?”

Larry nodded and said, “Yes, I’d very much enjoy chatting with you. But won’t you be deserting your friends?”

Maugham said, “Shambu, do you think you could find us a quiet place? For two?”

To Larry he said, “Shambu will see you to a place where we can talk.

“And don’t you worry. They’ll understand. I’ve probably already been intruding. You know, they’re talking business.

“So, if you’ll excuse me? For just a moment?”

“Of course.”

The maître d’ led Larry past the back-lit modern art mural, on to a quieter side of the room.

When Maugham returned he said, “You must bring me up to date, Larry. I haven’t taken a taxi in New York these past few years that I didn’t hope to see you. Am I very far off the mark?”

Larry smiled acknowledgment.

“I’ve often wondered if you would settle in New York. Our parting wasn’t during the most satisfying times, I know. I was saddened at your loss. But you’re here now. Let’s talk about – umn, umn – more pleasant times. I hope you’ve been well.”

“Thank you, Mr. Maugham. Yes, it was a dark time, losing Sophie like that.

“I’m sure that if I’d ever married . . . back when we were engaged, I thought I’d be saving her. I now see that was really egoistic of me.”

He paused, then said, “It really was – more than that.”

An awkward silence, before he continued, “I really did love her. Not romantically, perhaps. It was actually – more than that. I no doubt had to go through the loss. It probably had to be. For me to discover more about who I am.”

He lowered his head as he said, “That has taken many years. As I am sure you’d know.”

Maugham said, “I do want to hear all about it. First, though, shall we order? Would you like a drink first?

“And please – drop the formality. It’s just ‘William,’ as it was back in Europe.”

Larry shook his head. “No thanks. I’ll take just a cup of tea. Yes, it will be William. Take us right back to Paris.” He laughed.

The waiter interrupted, handing Maugham a menu. He asked permission, then recited the specials of the day and added, “I’ll come back after you’ve had a chance to decide.”

They turned back to each other.

Serendipity,” Maugham said. “For you to have read Franny — umm — just today.  And me there — with Salinger discussing his next story.

“Franny was onto something, alright. Sort of a spiritual quest.

“Like you, after you met that Polish coal miner Kosti – and those Benedictine monks in Cologne, of course – umn – and going to India.

“I gathered, from our talk back there with my friends, that Salinger’s new story is more about Franny’s spirituality – umn, umn – and her brother Zooey’s reaction.”

Larry stroked his forehead with his fingertips.

He said, “You know, I was already familiar with The Way of a Pilgrim. I read it while visiting Brother Ensheim’s monastery. I even read a bit of the Philokalia, the book the pilgrim discovered on his search.”

Maugham lifted his chin slightly.

“I even used the Jesus Prayer for awhile, especially aboard the freighter on my way to Bombay.”

Larry studied Maugham’s countenance.

“You are a very different sort, William. I mean, you listen more attentively than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Maugham said, “It’s the author in me. I can’t help it. People do fascinate me.

“And Larry, you are exceptional. If I become too intrusive, please let me know. But – umn – I am curious about you – and your meanderings.”

He watched Larry’s reaction.

“After we parted in France that day – umn, umn – did that Jesus Prayer help you deal with your feelings about Sophie? Umn – the way she died? Murdered that way? Her throat!”

Larry straightened up and hesitatingly replied, “No, it didn’t take away the pain of her loss. Nor of her death and the life she’d been leading. I felt guilty for not having saved her – you know, by marrying her when I had the opportunity. But that too, is really my ego speaking.”

Maugham placed his knife and fork on his plate in the proper European manner.

“In the end, yes. You know, of course, all about my spiritual work in India.” He blushed.

“Losing Sophie, I’m sure you know, how it cast all my spiritual discipline asunder, leaving me – to feel all that pain – of failure – of loss – of that emptiness – of what might have happened – if – if – things had gone differently – for us – for her.”

He swallowed, eyes turned down, taking a deep breath.

Maugham reached across the table, placed his hands upon Larry’s, holding back from speaking.

When Larry finally looked up, he smiled and changed the tone of his voice.

“Well, yes – at that time – once I got past the sheer shock of it, that prayer actually was helpful. It was what prepared me – really – for work on myself. You know how that went. I saw your movie.”

Did you, now? Did it adequately portray anything close to what you actually experienced?”

“Fairly well. Oh not in details, of course. But it was a good approximation. I have to thank you for that.”

“I was concerned.”

“I was pleased at how well you did it.”

“Good enough. But please, I tell me about your years here in New York. I mean – umn, umn – it’s been more like decades, not years.”

“Sure. Well you guessed right. I’ve been driving a taxi. I like it. Gives me a window into life. Not just in New York. But in the world. I hear so many stories from my passengers. It’s like being shipboard on a great ocean liner.

“I now own my taxi. It wasn’t in my plans. But the man for whom I worked – had no family – thought well enough of my work though to leave it to me when he passed on.”

He laughed for a few minutes.

“It presented something of a problem at first.”

“Problem? Too rich for your ascetic life?”

“Yes, some of that. I mean taxes, though. The authorities came for taxes on the gift of the cab. I had to find a way – either of putting together funds enough to pay the taxes. Or! Or I’d have had to forfeit the cab to the tax collectors.”

“I see your dilemma.”

“I wrestled with it for as long as they permitted. The authorities were decent. Seemed to understand my predicament. They offered me a payment plan I could live with.”

“I see.”

“I went with their plan and it turned out just fine. And it really hasn’t changed much in my simple life. I do all the driving. I mean, I don’t hire drivers to take shifts when I don’t drive myself. I drive when I want and I earn enough to pay the rent. And then some.”

Maugham said, “That leaves a big gap – umn – from Toulon to New York and – umn umn – “

“Yes, well I know. How did I get started here, you mean? The man who had the cottage next to mine back in Sanary-sur-Mer was the Marseilles agent of a freight line that sailed from the Near East to New York. He arranged for me to replace one of the two ship hands that got sick in Egypt.

“Fortunately I earned enough on the trip across to last me awhile. Of course that is exactly as I intended, after giving away my inheritance.

“And as a cabby, I believe that giving my fullest attention, listening intently to what passengers have to say, would be the surest spiritual discipline I could live. Open my listening.

“It’s my namaste. The way I give myself to the immutable in everyone. Wherever I meet anyone. Whoever they are. And you, Mr. Maugham, William, have been a model for me to emulate.

“So, you see, that the book I am now writing is something in the manner of Balzac. Though it will really only be as good as the folks who ride in my cab.”

Maugham said, “It sounds as though it will be a lot different from the book you wrote in France. That collection that I said was like Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.”

“Thank you. That’s quite a compliment! Thank you. I’d just written about a few hugely successful men and what they did with their successes. Like Sulla, the Roman dictator. How once he gained absolute power, he resigned to live a private life.

“I found that interesting – why he’d give up the life of a potentate.

“I just wrote – as you know, as an exploration of what men who succeed mightily do after they gain such great success.

“Even then, I was taking great effort to remove the veil from over my inner eye. I hoped it would help release me from my own worldly attachments.

“My new book will be quite different. It’s just an opportunity for me to better relate to people of all stripes, to understand something about what’s in their hearts. Deep down, I mean. And above all, to try to see the unity among all of us.

“It seems that one of our greatest spiritual needs is to get someone to hear our story. No matter who they are, no matter how high or how low their social standing, everyone needs a listening ear. Someone to listen to them. So why not me!”

“I believe you too, Mr. Maugham, see that our inner being needs to be heard. Simply to be understood. Really. It is our greatest need — to realize our own deeper self, which seems to get stifled – and suppressed – in the process of our becoming civilized adults.

“Listening turned out to be a greater gift — not just to others, but to me! Even more useful to me than I even realized. I mean, as I was jotting down their conversations, it was they – their stories that are a real gift. To me!”

“Thus, began this latest chapter of my life.

“I live in a furnished room – In a shabby building – in Lower Manhattan near the Hudson River loading docks. I live frugally. This of course, was the life I chose –to gain the ultimate answers to my quest.”

Maugham said, “My book, the film, told of your quest – umn, umn – all the way to India and how you found Sri Bhagavan, my Shri Ganesha, and those long months you were alone in the forester’s cabin.”

“Well, once I had a taste of enlightenment I knew what I had to do.

“After burying Sophie, I realized I needed to do more of my own share of work in this world while I am still in this physical body. As you know, the reason I gave away my inheritance was to avoid the temptation of avoiding working – at a job.”

After Larry paused, Maugham said, “How did you manage to get work? Even as a cabbie? I mean it must have been tough to get any kind of job at all – back in those dark days of the Great Depression! Of course, I always expected that you’d end up driving – umn, umn – either a truck – umn – or a Yellow Cab here in the City. But how did you ever do it?”

“It was divine guidance. I happened to be  chatting with a cabbie one afternoon at an Automat lunchroom.

“We talked about his work, of course. It seemed fortuitous! He even offered to ‘put in a good word’ for me with his boss, the owner of the cab. He said the boss had difficulty getting anyone trustworthy enough take the night shift on his cab.

“Immediately – that day! – he took me to speak with his boss.

“It was a blessing. After the boss listened to my new acquaintance’s recommendation, asked me a few questions, checked my driver’s license, he handed me the keys to a cab, gave me some simple instructions, and set me free on my first night’s shift.

“It turned out perfectly. The work suits me. I was lucky to get enough business during those days to pay the rent. As you observed, it was not easy back during the Depression.

“There were long periods of waiting in the empty cab until I’d get another passenger.

“That was okay.

“I read books I’d always wanted to read – Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, Montaigne’s Essays, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; and of course the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads.

“As important as my meditation and my spiritual reading, the great gift of driving a taxi is the passengers. I’d even call it a spiritual gift, for what it did for my spiritual refinement.

“Nightly I always seem to get at least one passenger who would chat a lot. None of them seemed to realize just how fascinating their stories were to me. They weren’t telling me for my benefit. Just to unburden themselves, speaking to some ill-defined listener.

“I keep a journal of their stories. I told you that I am writing a book. That ‘s an exaggeration. It isn’t the reason I write, as I am sure you understand. The stories take on a special meaning for me – as I jot down the words. And over the years I’ve filled dozens of notebooks.”

 

Larry seemed to have run through all that he had to say, and allowed a long, comfortable pause.

Maugham finally broke the stillness.

“Yes,” he said, “I can see it would have great significance for you. Would you say it gives your life purpose? Being a storyteller, I would think so, of course.”

Larry nodded.

“I’m not sure I’d give it so much significance,” he said. “Writing is just the next right thing for me to do after my meditation practice in the evening. I mean, as a sort of summary of my day’s more interesting moments. And really, William, I’m nowhere near a writer – of stories. Nothing like your skills. You would tailor these people’s lives into entertaining tales. I’m just recording what I hear. Unembellished. I’ve never considered them of any particular consequence.”

Maugham rubbed his chin, said, “Well, your intentions may not be the same, though your methods are.”

“Thank you. I just jot them down only to cap off the end of my workday. Sort of like keeping other people’s diaries. My purpose in life is humbler than being a writer, if I dare take pride in saying that.”

He laughed merrily, saying, “Proud to be humble! That’s an oxymoron! I must be more careful.”

“Sorry for pushing the analogy,” Maugham said. “However, I would like to hear more about your curious customers.”

 

The busboy asked, “May I clear away your dishes?”

“Of course. Please. And would you let our waiter know – umn – I’d like the check?”

Maugham glanced about the dining room and said, “Perhaps we ought to move to the lobby. It’s very comfortable and quiet. Good venue for a ‘leisurely chat, if you’d care to? Do you have the time?”

“It’s a good time, really. There is a lull in business at this hour of the day. And yes, I’d really enjoy more time with you. And – after all – I’m my own boss, you know.”

“Good. Like those who’ve read The Razor’s Edge – um um – or seen the film, I too have a burning desire to know all that has occurred in the life of Larry Darrell since we left him at the end of my narrative.”

Maugham laughed; Larry blushed.

He reluctantly said, “I don’t see that it’s all that interesting. I’ve given you the bigger picture already. It’s been a long time though, since we’ve seen each other and I do enjoy your company.”

Maugham took the check, said, “If you don’t mind, Larry. I’ll put this on my tab. I’m staying here while in the City.” He signed and handed it to the waiter, saying, “Just put it on my account. If you will, please.”

As they headed out of the dining room he said to Larry, “There’s been a good deal of speculation about who you are, I mean who the real Larry Darrell is in The Razor’ Edge.

“It’s all because of my saying in the start of the novel that ‘I have invented nothing. To save embarrassment to people still living I have given to the persons who play a part in this story names of my own contriving, and have in other ways taken pains to make sure that no one should recognize them.’

“Even though it is – umn umn – all fictional – umn – just a novel and – umn – a mere literary device, people have taken it all too seriously and have sought out the true Larry of my tale – umn umn – wouldn’t really suspect that it is – umn – you, my dear fellow!”

“Some have guessed you might be Christopher Isherwood.” Maugham shook his head lightly. “He straightened out Time magazine for the suggestion. Of course, Ish did help me with the translation of the Sanskrit in the Upanishad that gave me the novel’s title.

“Then some speculated that you were Ronald Nixon who had an emotional crisis as a pilot in World War I, and his finding life rather meaningless took a monastic life in India similar to yours. Others guess that you are a storybook version of Guy Hague.”

Maugham smiled mischievously.

“A few who visited Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram – umn umn – for heaven’s sake – thought you may be Colonel Alan Chadwick of the Hampshire Regiment. And there is one strange fellow who claims you are his Mentor, an anonymous Zen monk in California.

“No one really knows, to this day, that it could be you. And it bothers them!”

Larry said, “I greatly appreciate your giving me my privacy. Thank you for protecting it. I have no idea what it would do to me, should I have to deal with journalists.”

 

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